Count Me In: If Volunteers Are More Highly Valued, Does Volunteer Work Become More or Less Gendered?

Volunteer labor has been a substitute for capital since the start of the regional theater movement. Without this subsidy many theaters would be fundamentally different – and some would close. If we don’t develop new ways to value, welcome, and stay engaged with tomorrow’s volunteers, the not-for-profit theater sector’s most valuable subsidy will dry up. StateraArts is thrilled to publish a 4-part series this week by Meg Friedman based on her research COUNT ME IN: Leveraging Generational Differences to Sustain Volunteer Engagement.

Art by Sarah Greenman

Art by Sarah Greenman

Count Me In, Part 1: If Volunteers Are More Highly Valued, Does Volunteer Work Become More or Less Gendered?

By Meg Friedman

Most Volunteers Are Women For a Reason – But Does The Reason Still Exist?

Women – particularly cisgender, heterosexual women, actually or presumed to be living in marriage – have been the prototypical volunteer imagined by not-for-profit leaders for decades. As the arts and culture sector exploded in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a twenty-year long effort to put women back in the kitchen after World War II meant that a corps of energized women had the ability and appetite to do work outside the home – with a decreasing number of outlets for that desire. Volunteering in the not-for-profit space could satisfy at least part of that desire. While it wasn’t (and still isn’t) recognized as participation in the economy, volunteering can closely mirror all the other benefits of working: exercising and expanding one’s skills; participating in a shared effort to reach a common, visible goal; contributing to a purpose larger than oneself; learning; and opportunities to connect meaningfully with new people.

Over the past 50 years, however, women’s economic participation has rightly earned closer attention and become easier to capture in data. Thanks to generations of activism, and the expanding definition of “women” educational and professional opportunities have become more accessible and the legal environment incrementally more supportive of anti-discrimination, anti-sexist practices. Generation X, people born (roughly) between 1960 and 1980 in the US, saw for the first time a critical reversal: more women than men completed college degrees. While the pay gap remains unresolved, any education gap has been closed for over a decade – perhaps an early sign of a major shift in volunteer participation.

When Women Already Have Social Capital, is Volunteering Necessary?

With more formal education – and as a result more professional opportunities and obligations – do women need to volunteer? And can they? Fifty years ago, my grandmother and her peers could not be the sole signatory on a bank account, much less assume they would author their own professional story. Now, women are perceived to be delaying key life milestones in favor of building educational credentials and a stable career. It should go without saying that meeting these goals requires an overwhelming investment of time and energy. So, where does volunteerism fit in? For many women, volunteering at theaters or elsewhere simply may not be relevant. Or, as life milestones and lifespans extend deeper into women’s thirties and forties and fifties, it may be that family and professional priorities always rise to the top. Volunteering just cannot supersede caring for aging parents, or juggling career growth alongside childrearing, for example. The volunteer opportunities either fall to the wayside or have to be designed to accommodate ever-busier, more ambitious women with an increasing share of social capital.

Reconceiving How Theaters Value (Women’s) Labor

Theaters can respond to these forces in a number of ways – and these responses fit into a potential sea change in how performing arts not-for-profits value labor. The “women’s work” of stuffing envelopes, tearing tickets, and cooking potluck welcome dinners no longer aligns with how rising generations of women envision their labor contributions. Leadership and decision-making roles, however, are clear paths forward. Women are still woefully underrepresented in the leadership of not-for-profit theaters, but as the #MeToo movement advances, along with parallel activism for wage parity and transparency, theaters can embrace the opportunity to make room at the table for women to take leadership roles as volunteers – through board service and in other areas. The notion that a woman volunteer is automatically a helper and not a decider must go away.

This points to a larger opportunity facing theaters: developing a new understanding of the cost of doing business, as a function of how we value labor.

This blog has been adapted from Count Me In: Leveraging Generational Differences To Sustain Volunteer Engagement. For the full report, click HERE. Here are the links to Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.


Meg Friedman Headshot.jpg

Meg Friedman is a Consultant with AMS Planning & Research, where her work includes strategic planning, facility feasibility, and a range of other research and decision-making services. Meg’s work touches arts and entertainment industry trends ranging from consumer preferences to venue design and the arts workforce. She has created dynamic financial models for small planning studies to multi-million-dollar facilities.

Past projects include the inaugural strategic plan for Assets for Artists, a program of MASS MoCA, and a strategic plan for the New England Foundation for the Arts. Meg has researched trends and best practices in arts venue development for the City of Boise, Idaho, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and the City of Vaughan, Ontario. She has provided research for a chapter in Routledge’s Performing Arts Center Management and was a contributor to the 11th edition of Stage Management by Lawrence Stern and Jill Gold. Current projects include the planning of a new performing arts center in Sarasota, Florida, and research to define an arts sector investment strategy for The McConnell Foundation in Redding, California.

Meg holds a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Goucher College and a BA in Theater Design and Production from UCLA. Prior to joining AMS, Meg was an AEA stage manager and worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as at leading regional theaters. She also served as a moderator for SMNetwork.org, the original free web forum for stage managers.

Meg tweets from @AMSarts and @megf_miles.